Oysters, sausages, German potato salad, sauerkraut! Had I died and gone to heaven, or to that heaven-on-earth known as Alsace? And had I landed in one of those brasseries which, although they'd originated as breweries, evolved into restaurants where you could have anything from a snack to a full meal at any time of day?
Well, no, I was reading the Barley Brothers website menu, and when I got there, I found pretty much what I'd expected.
A Winnipeg pub, in other words, one that (like its Alsatian cousins) also serves anything from a snack to a full meal, all day, every day from 11 a.m. until late. It's a big, rambling place with dark woods, russet bricks and huge, fascinating old sepia photographs of the prairies and some Winnipeg breweries of the past. The walls are littered with television sets -- silent on my visits, but it made no difference because the music was deafening.
This is no place for a tete--tete -- it's a place for beer, my own enjoyment of which rarely extends beyond a Tsingtao with Chinese food, or a Kingfisher with an Indian meal. The Pilsners were wasted on me in Prague and in London, my sissified tipple was usually a shandy. But on my visits to Barley Brothers I did bring a beer-loving friend -- not exactly a maven, but one with a better beer-educated palate than mine.
There are over 80 listings, all on tap, all (with two German and two Mexican exceptions) Canadian and American, priced from $4.25 to $10.25 for 10 ounces. There was some confusion when we tried to order one of two flights of beer, which come in sets of four glasses of 4 1/2 ounces each (it took two servers to explain them properly). What's needed, according to my beer-loving friend, and some others (especially in a beer specialty house with so long a list) is a tasting flight of two or three ounces each. Nevertheless, my friend was impressed by the selection and liked the Fire House Amber from Lake of the Woods (a nice depth, a little richness and a bit of a bite) and a Liberty Pale Ale from California (smooth, and very drinkable on its own).
Me? I was there for the food, and that's what the stars are based on. I started with the items that had first attracted my attention -- the six skinny little rostbratwursts which might have equalled two plump standard-size wursts; the merest dollop of sauerkraut; and a fair-sized serving of German potato salad. All of it was good, but it added up to not much food for a pricey $15.
The oysters I'd looked forward to were unexceptional but decent, but (in the what-on-earth-were-they-thinking? category) they came under a blanket of off-putting white beer foam that had no taste at all and no function that I can imagine. There was also a mignonette sauce underneath that I can't describe, since I'd scraped it off along with the foam in order to have the oysters as close to their natural state as possible ($9 for three, $16 for six). There were also mussels -- small but plump, juicy and better than many I've had recently; unfortunately the dark lager sauce was terribly bitter, and the slices of bratwurst in it had been overcooked and tasted of nothing but that sauce ($16).
The menu also offers burgers, from $12 to $15, which includes either potatoes or red cabbage. There's no such thing as a simple burger and the cheapest, at $12, comes with cheddar, bacon, pickles, lettuce, tomato and an onion ring. The bacon was good and freshly cooked, but the meat had no flavour, the cheese was a mere smear, the onion ring was flabby and the bun had been spread with a powerful mustard that I didn't like. The included braised red cabbage was good, but if you opt for potatoes, choose the nice, garlicky mashed over the frozen fries.
The inevitable mac and cheese was dry, with a stiff and skimpy béchamel sauce, an unidentified smoked cheese and some bits of jalape±os. I had to take the promised pork belly confit on faith, since all I could find were shreds -- so few, so tiny and so dry they could have been anything. The dish was finished with a final sprinkling of some kind of powdery and utterly tasteless crumbs ($13).
However, we did well with the beer and bison bourguignon -- a very generous serving of meat and veggies in a flavourful brown gravy ($25). The wee chunks of beer bread that came with it, though, were hard and useless for sopping up gravy. Actually -- as I discovered on another visit when they were fresher and much softer -- they were hard because they were stale. We might have also been pleased with a crusty and tender pork schnitzel, paired with a pleasant cucumber salad, if the meat hadn't been so greasy, and the accompanying spaetzle hadn't been tough and powerfully overdosed with sage ($21).
Other possible choices include a hot pretzel ($9), cold smoked wings ($13), poutines ($11 to $16), a few sandwiches ($13 to $15, including potatoes), fried chicken, fish and chips, steak frites and perogies ($13 to $18). There's also a 12 ounce rib-eye ($32), a 10-ounce strip loin ($28) and arctic char ($27).
There's only one real dessert (the alternative is a beer float), but the black and tan cake was absolutely marvellous -- two dark, dense chocolate slabs, made with stout and drizzled with a pale ale caramel sauce. The huge portion must have been meant for two, and although I often can't finish even a shared dessert after a full meal, in this case I devoured every crumb of my share ($8).
I've heard complaints about the service, but on my visits the servers were prompt, attentive, polite and generally efficient.
To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below or click here.
Restaurants marked with a red flag were rated between 0.5 to 2.5 stars; yellow flags mark those rated between 2.5 to 4 stars; and green flags mark those rated rated 4.5 to 5 stars. Locations marked with a yellow dot were not assigned a star rating.